Things to Do in Kauai: The Garden Island of Adventure

Things to Do in Kauai: The Garden Island of Adventure. Helicopter view of the Na Pali Coast with bright green foliage in the distance, turquoise water below, and blue sky with clouds above.

With picturesque scenery and atmospheric small towns, the island of Kauai is the most relaxing place in the United States

Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Spring 2019

If you dream about experiencing Hawaii in all of its natural beauty, away from the crowds and high-rise hotels, then consider visiting Kauai. The Garden Island remains largely undeveloped, compared to some of the other Hawaiian islands, and it combines unspoiled tropical scenery with an easygoing attitude. Plus, Kauai's small size makes it a relatively easy place to explore. Here are some of the top destinations on Kauai, the Garden Isle.

Hanalei Bay

View of Hanalei Bay in Kauai with turquoise water and lush, green foliage below and bright blue sky with picturesque clouds above.

This laid-back town off the Kuhio Highway - past the Royal Coconut Coast and Anahola near Princeville on Kauai's northern coast - charms visitors with colorful plantation-style buildings and an idyllic setting between the ocean, verdant mountains and peaceful taro fields. With a scattering of shops and restaurants, Hanalei is a popular pit stop on the way to the neighboring Na Pali Coast. If you have time, visit the historic Hanalei Pier, a local gathering place. Hanalei's exotic beauty has served as a backdrop in many movies. For example, the 1958 hit, "South Pacific," contains scenes shot at nearby Lumahai Beach.

Na Pali Coast

View of the Na Pali Coast in Kauai with jagged green cliffs jutting above bright blue water.

Forbidding and beautiful, this undeveloped coastline on the north shore of Kauai consists of remote beaches and valleys, stretches of deep jungle, and steep cliffs eroded by plunging waterfalls. The only way to visit this rugged area is by boat or by trekking the 11-mile, cliff-hugging Kalalau Trail. The Kalalau Trail often closes after heavy rain storms, so if you plan to go, be sure to check local sources about the trail's condition before your trip.

Poipu

Picture of tree sitting near Poipu Beach in Kauai near bright blue water in background and sky above.

Poipu beach's white sand and consistently balmy weather make it one of Kauai's top destinations. Located on the sunny south shore of the island, Poipu, just south of old Koloa town, is an excellent place to go swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing or sunbathing on the beach. Since Poipu contains several resorts and an ever-expanding roster of vacation rentals, many travelers base themselves in this area on the south side near Spouting Horn during their Kauai vacation.

Lihue

Waves crashing onto sand beach in Lihue. Kauai with cars parks below and visitors walking above.

If you come to Kauai by airplane or cruise ship, you'll visit Lihue, the commercial and transportation hub of the island. But, with a population of around 6,000 people, Lihue, which is just south of the Wailua River and Kapaa on the east side of the island, is hardly a metropolis. In fact, it feels more like a small town. However, Lihue offers many useful amenities for travelers, such as banks, shopping, restaurants, medical facilities, and a range of accommodations. Kalapaki Beach, conveniently located near downtown Lihue, is popular with both tourists and locals for swimming and surfing on the east coast of the island.

Waimea Canyon and Koke'e State Park

Man walks back from rock as Waimea Canyon in Kauai sits in background with jagged red and green cliffs partially-hidden by clouds above.

At more than 3,000 feet deep and with a length of 14 miles, the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific" is one of Kauai's top attractions. Its red-hued walls contrast strikingly with the green tropical foliage that covers much of the rest of Kauai, and the views from the rim of the canyon are a photographer's dream. Several hiking trails of various levels of difficulty lead into and around the canyon. If you want to escape the heat, drive 17 miles past the canyon on Highway 550 to Koke'e State Park, located at a cool elevation of 4,000 feet. Here, you'll find camping opportunities, hiking trails through the rain forest, and postcard-worthy views of the famous Kalalau Valley.

Hanapepe

Series of surf boards lined up in a row in Hawaii.

With a rich history shaped by Native Hawaiian farmers and immigrants from the Philippines, China, and Japan, the small town of Hanapepe has evolved into a funky, relaxed hub for art galleries and locally-owned restaurants and boutiques. Many people stop in Hanapepe, located in the southwestern part of Kauai, on the way to Waimea Canyon. Hanapepe's atmosphere turns festive on Friday nights when shops and galleries stay open late. Vendors and live music add to the excitement.

Polihale Beach

Two people walk in solitude along picturesque beach with golden sand, crashing white waves, and crisp turquoise blue water.

On the remote and windswept west side of Kauai, Polihale Beach is one of the most secluded places on the island that is open to visitors. To get there, you must drive five miles on a bumpy dirt road that only four-wheel-drive vehicles can traverse. But, if you make the effort, you'll find a long, empty stretch of golden sand, bordered by tall dunes. Polihale Beach is part of a state park, with amenities such as restrooms, picnic tables and showers. You can camp there with a permit. Swift currents make this beach dangerous for swimming, but it's a great place to take in views of the island of Niihau and the Na Pali Coast.

Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Kauai

Two people fly in helicopter above ocean overlooking Kauai with its bright green landscape.

Of course, there a few other points of interest on Kauai we didn't have a chance to mention, like Mount Waialeale or Nawiliwili Harbor or Lydgate Beach or Wailua Falls.  

And while it doesn't have quite the hustle-and-bustle of Honolulu on Oahu or the scientific significance of Kilauea on the Big Island, Kauai with its Aloha culture, sugar plantations, and Kauai coffee makes it perhaps the nicest place for a laid-back vacation in the United States.

With picturesque scenery and atmospheric small towns, the island of Kauai is an ideal destination for independent travelers seeking to enjoy the beauty and relaxed ambiance of the Hawaiian islands.

Looking for more on things to do in Kauai and other outdoor adventure? Try these:

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

— John Muir

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Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Spring 2019

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